I’ve received lots of cheery “happy women’s day” messages today, replete with smiley emojis, pink bows and red roses, for which – of course – I’m grateful. I wouldn’t be so churlish as to remind my kind well-wishers that the first National Woman’s Day was actually designated by the Socialist Party of America in honour of the 1908 women garment workers’ strike in New York. But you don’t mind if I remind you, do you?
Women’s Day is now International and all the way across the globe from New York, on a green hilltop in South India, right at this moment a woman called Rajeshwari is settling down for the night on the floor of her three room house, her daughter by her side. Her husband and son are asleep on the bed beside her, and her mother-in-law in the next room.
Rajeshwari’s rest is well earned. When I met her a few weeks ago, she had just bathed after a long day plucking tea – as she does six days of every week. The more she plucks the more she earns to support her family – but then, of course, the more she has to carry up those steep High Range hills. I first heard of Rajeshwari in 2015 when she and three or four other women led an uprising of women tea workers demanding better pay and conditions – which I have written about before (ad nauseam?).
Witnessing that strike – against male management, politicians and even trade unions – made me determined to find a way to support these courageous women. After much soul-searching, blogging, tweeting, consulting with colleagues and friends in my network of human rights and labour rights experts, I decided to set up a new organisation called THIRST – The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea.
My hope is that it will bring together the many other organisations, big and small, around the world, who have been working to improve conditions on tea plantations – where the vast majority of the workforce are women. The combined forces of trade unions, international NGOs, local campaigning organisations, academic institutions could be a powerful force for good. All the more powerful for acting in unity.
On top of her job as a tea plucker, Rajeshwari is also General Secretary of Pempila Orumai – the women’s trade union established as a result of the strike. It means Unity of Women. And to me that is what International Women’s Day is all about. Its about showing solidarity with women like Rajeshwari and her four thousand colleagues who had the courage to stand up for their rights. It’s about working in unity with them and for them.
So when every woman in the world is earning enough to live on – to actually live decently on, not just survive – without having to carry back-breaking loads, when every woman is sleeping on a bed (beside her partner if she has one) and is represented by as many women trade unionists and politicians as men, and when at least half the managers in every company women work for are women – then I will cheerfully join you in sending smiley-face emojis saying Happy Women’s Day.
April 1st 2016 will herald a number of new beginnings. Are these serious changes for the better or just April’s Fool jokes?
To test it out, let’s create a hypothetical business; let’s call it Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in London, owned by April and employing four workers on minimum wage. Bill (25) and Bob (24) are the waiters. Mary (19) is an apprentice learning to operate the new-fangled tea urn and Tim (17) clears the tables and washes up.
April’s first new beginning: the UK’s ‘national living wage’ comes into effect
April gathers her staff and announces (through gritted teeth) “Great news. From today, I have to pay the ‘national living wage’ to everyone who’s eligible!” “Hoorah!” cry Bill, Bob, Mary and Tim, “at last we’ll have enough to live on! No more debt, no more second and third jobs!” April hands out slips explaining how much each is going to be paid from now on.
Bill (25)’s grin fades; “But its it’s only going up from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour – that’s not the living wage,” he cries. “The Living Wage Foundation has calculated that we need £9.40 – plus benefits – to live on in London!”
“But I never said I’d be paying you a living wage,” says April, “I said ‘national living wage’ which is a completely different beast. It’s set by the government without any consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.”
Bill’s demand to know why it’s called the national living wage in that case, is drowned out by a cry from Bob (24). “£7.20? But Bill and I do exactly the same job and I’m still only getting £6.70 – it’s a mistake, right?”
“No, dear,” says April, “the ‘national living wage’ only applies to people over 25. Sorry!”
“So I suppose that means l’m still going to be paid only £5.30?” grumbles Tim (17).
“And I’ll keep getting £3.30 even though I’m two years older than Tim because it’s the first year of my apprenticeship?” says Mary (19) glumly.
“That’s right,” says April, “the rest of you stay on the old minimum wage rates. But as my total salary budget is going up by 50p an hour, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to hand over your tips. After all, if I go out of business, you’ll all be out of a job.”
“It’s an April Fool joke, isn’t it?” says Bill, to hollow laughter all round.
April’s second new beginning: the modern slavery act reporting requirements come into effect
The company that supplies tea to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe has a turnover of over £36 million, so it will now have to “produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains” to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.
The company buys its tea from another company that buys from tea auctions in India. That tea may have been grown by one of several different companies that own tea plantations all over India, or it may have been grown by individual or cooperatives of smallholders… there’s no way of telling because it all gets mixed up in the factory and at the auction house.
Amid the labyrinthine complexities of tea company ownership and influence, where suppliers may own brands and workers may appear to own shares yet remain on appallingly poor wages in shockingly bad housing, it has been suggested that companies could be colluding to ensure that auction prices are kept low… so regardless of where the tea may have been grown, the money available to pay workers is severely restricted.
Those workers are the descendants of bonded and indentured labourers who were brought to isolated tea plantations a hundred years ago. Now as then, the plantation owners provide them with housing, education, healthcare, even food rations – so they are heavily dependent on their employers. Some would call this arrangement generous company perks, others would equate it with slavery – or something very closely akin to it.
How will Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’s supplier ever manage to navigate that labyrinthine supply chain to find out what’s going on within it, let alone ” ensure there is no modern slavery” in it? Yet the statement the company provides to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will need to say more than “Sorry, it was just too hard to find out”. It will need to be truly diligent in its due diligence and find out exactly where its tea comes from. It will need to exert every ounce of its influence and insist that those it buys from don’t suppress prices so that workers’ wages and conditions get squeezed. And it will need to find ways of listening to workers themselves to find out if what they are experiencing is akin to modern slavery.
April Fool joke? Possibly. Time will tell.
The third new beginning: Members of a new trade union for women tea workers in Kerala, stand for local elections
Ok, I’m cheating a little on this one. The beginning is not strictly on April 1st. The process began in September last year when women who pluck the tea that ends up in Mary’s Ye Olde Tea Shoppe new-fangled urn, rose up in protest. They were protesting against their bonus being slashed, against the low wages that made them so dependent on that bonus, against their poor housing, dangerous working conditions and the failure of politicians and trade unions to prevent these abuses of their rights as workers. The women who led that uprising were Gomathi Augustin, Indrani Manikandan and Lissy Sunny. They formed Pembilla Orumai – women’s unity – but weren’t initially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as it was not yet formally constituted as a trade union. Without them at the negotiating table, they were awarded a small pay increase on condition that they pluck more tea and a promise to look at a further increase and their other demands after the elections.
Gomathi (38), Indrani (36) and Lissy (47) can now earn Rs 301 a day – about £3 (ie 30p less than apprentice Mary, the lowest paid employee at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, earns in an hour). They are asking for Rs 500 (about £5) a day.
Their members have already won a handful of seats in village level government, and in April they start contesting further seats. If they win, as their sisters won last year, their grass roots movement will have been legitimised, despite the alleged efforts of established trade union supporters to discredit, destabilise and destroy the movement. They will be formally empowered to support their fellow female workers in defending their rights to decent pay and working and living conditions.
April Fool joke? If so, the joke is on those who thought they could exploit women workers and get away with it.
*NB the photo is used purely for illustrative purposes to give a generic picture of an English tea room. The words of the blog are not connected in any way to the establishment featured in the photo.
On a chair opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seol, South Korea sits a statue. A life-sized figure of a young woman symbolizing the innocence that was violated by Japan when it forced 200,000 women from Korea and beyond to become sex slaves for their soldiers during WWII.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has just offered his “most sincere apologies” on behalf of his country and agreed to pay into a fund to support the survivors of the atrocity. He is now hoping that the statue – a source of great embarrassment to his country – will be removed.
Meanwhile, the British establishment is huffing and puffing at student calls for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College, Oxford, on the grounds that it perpetuates a colonialist, Eurocentric view of the world. Or, to use the words of a Radio 4 Any Questions listener, because he was a “vicious, exploitative racist”.
Should countries apologise and pay reparations for the sins of their forebears like Japan has just done? Or should they shrug and leave tributes to their Empire-makers standing as proud testaments to their history, warts and all?
While Any Questions panellist Bernard Jenkins said if we start taking down statues of unpleasant people from our history “where will it end?!”, Labour MP, Kate Hoey, dismissed the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, calling the University “pathetic” for seriously considering the students’ calls. “I was a student demonstrator over apartheid,” she said, “I was involved in all sorts of sit-ins… and when I look back I wonder what on earth we sat in for because I don’t think we actually got anything.” More troubling than the apparent shallowness of her convictions that this comment reveals, is the brushing over of the important role that international support did play in ending apartheid.
There are worse legacies of the British Empire than statues. The tea plantations of the Indian sub-continent, for example, where historic hierarchies and exploitative practices have been preserved and hardened. While statues may cause offence, these tea plantations continue to cause suffering to living human beings by paying poverty wages – lower than the national minimum wage – and providing substandard benefits for hard and dangerous physical work.
Despite Cecil Rhodes’ contention that “we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,” there is no escaping the fact that economic exploitation was in fact the Empire’s primary aim, with the betterment of the human race as a nice bonus thrown in. Brits may or may not have done their exploiting in a more gentlemanly manner than other colonisers, but exploit they did. As Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, said when he apologised for London’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, “You can look across [towards the financial district] to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery”. And every time we buy a cheap pack of tea bags we are benefiting from the exploitation of tea workers.
So let us by all means debate whether the statues of vicious, exploitative racist Empire builders should remain standing, but in the meantime, let us call for the dismantling of the living monuments to human exploitation our forebears set up in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
And once it has ended, let us have the courage and decency to apologise for it, as Japan has done for the exploitation of those Korean women. Or like the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, did when he expressed “sincere regret” for the British torture and abuse of Kenyans in the 1950s. Or as Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia did in 2008 for the “profound grief, suffering and loss” it had inflicted on Australia’s aboriginal people, or then Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in the same year to Canada’s aboriginal peoples for the abuses they suffered at the residential schools they were forced to attend.
Ken Livingstone ended his speech with the words “Slavery was not abolished as an act of good will by the slave owners, it was defeated by the resistance of the slaves.” The resistance of India’s tea plantation workers is in its infancy and needs our support. If student protests played even the smallest role in helping to end apartheid, perhaps they – and the rest of us – can also play a part in helping to end the continued exploitation of millions of tea plantation workers.